Mental Illness Is Not A Crime: L.A. County Pilots New Program
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Mental Illness Is Not A Crime: L.A. County Pilots New Program

It is estimated that, at any time in the U.S., there are 1.2 million people with mental illness who are being held either in jail or prison. Some of them, without a doubt, truly belong there. For most, though, jail and prison has become a quasi-triage center/hospital/safety net. And it takes a huge toll.

Take Cook County, Ill. for example. Sheriff Tom Dart keeps track of the mentally ill that come under his jurisdiction.

On average, at least 30% of the 12,000 inmates suffer from a “serious” mental illness, though the sheriff said the estimate is “a horrifically conservative number.” One of those inmates, Dart said, was a “chronic self-mutilator” who has been arrested more than 100 times, ringing up more than $1 million in repeated arrest- and detention-related costs.

Another inmate, the sheriff said, recently had to be fitted with a hockey mask and thick gloves resembling oven mitts to keep him from gouging out his remaining eye. The 43-year-old man, suffering bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had ripped one eye from the socket before his arrival at the jail, complaining that he “didn’t want to see evil anymore.”

Clearly, a county lockup or a prison setting is not a place for ill people to get help. One could argue that inmates with other illnesses such as diabetes or high blood pressure get treatment in jail, but those illnesses are not likely what brought those people into contact with the police in the first place. For the mentally ill, strange behaviors can lead to calls from neighbors, outbursts or fear can lead family members to contact police. Sometimes, it is even the mentally ill themselves that call.

The 57-year-old woman is in the midst of a near-meltdown.

“There’s three of them,” she tells two police officers, referring to “these predators who won’t leave me alone. Those sons of bitches won’t let me go. ”

The police have been here before — 61 times, in fact, in the past 17 months — and the only intruders to be found are the ones apparently stalking the woman’s troubled psyche.

During these episodes, she always summons the police because they are the closest thing she has to family. And no matter what, they always come.

Police are overwhelmed and undertrained for this work. Worse, the mentally ill simply cycle back into the law enforcement system, since the underlying illness cannot be fully addressed by the courts or jails.

In L.A. County, a new program is being launched to address this. It is meant to care for mentally-ill, low-risk offenders and offer not only treatment, but transitional housing and job-search skills. Not only will this reduce overcrowding in jails, but will treat the underlying cause of so many of these people’s reason for being in trouble with the law in the first place.

It is time to stop bouncing people who are mentally ill and genuinely sick between the streets and our jails,” said Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “This is an unconscionable waste of human life and money.”

Lacey and other officials, including county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Atty. Mike Feuer, announced the plan to give nonviolent felony defendants arrested for crimes like marijuana possession, resisting police and car theft the chance to complete an 18-month program.

Upon completion of the program, these offenders could have their records cleared, and may not have to pay court costs and fines. Mental health care workers will assess possible participants for the program. L.A. County is hoping for the same success as a similar program in Florida:

Judge Steve Leifman, who helped start the Criminal Mental Health Project in Florida, said that when the program started in 2000 the recidivism rate for low-level misdemeanor offenders with mental illness was 72%. Now, he said, it’s down to 20%.

The mental health care system in the United States has many, many areas that need improvement. One key part is removing the stigma of mental illness, and helping the public recognize that the mentally ill are not automatically criminals; all too often, they have an untreated illness. And that is not a crime.

Read “Mental illness program could transform L.A. County justice system” in the Los Angeles Times.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.